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From Cannes: ‘Women Do Cry’ is a Part Moving, Part Tone-Deaf Portrayal of Womanhood in Bulgaria

Dir. Vesela Kazakova and Mina Mileva — 2.5 Stars

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In 2021, a HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. Several decades ago, the disease was able to ravage predominantly LGBTQ victims at will; unconcerned governments did nothing, and many openly admitted to a blatant lack of concern with the lives of queer people dying from the virus. But science has finally found effective treatment, and the biggest modern fight against HIV is against the stigma around it which prevents people seeking treatment, not the virus itself.

“Women Do Cry”’s depiction of a young, ostensibly straight woman with HIV seems jarringly unconcerned with that history. The film follows the journey of 19-year-old Sonja (Maria Bakalova, who starred in "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm") after she learns that her boyfriend is seeing another girl, has been having sex with other men, and has given her HIV. The many women in Sonja’s family all band together in an attempt to force Sonja to accept treatment, and the film uses Sonja’s experience as a lens to examine larger issues of sexism in her native Bulgaria.

The film shines in its moments of intimacy and solidarity between the women of Sonja’s family, and particularly in the relationship between Sonja and her sister Lora (Ralitsa Stoyanova). “Women Do Cry” opens with a scene of the two sisters in an all-out catfight over closet space, and the sisters’ relationship continues to be characterized by bickering and jealousy but bedrocked by an unbreakable, underlying love for one another. That contrast makes “Women Do Cry”’s portrayal of sisterhood all the more realistic and deeply-felt, as the film thoughtfully captures all of the hair-pulling, jealousy, clothes-stealing, and best friendship that comes with having a sister. Scenes of the other women in Sonja’s family like her Mom and aunts aren’t quite as strong as those between Sonja and Lora, but they do touch on a range of important issues like unequal household responsibilities and gendered domestic violence that are often swept under the rug in the directors’ native country.

Unfortunately, woven in with this cocktail of “girl power” is a shocking level of homophobia and transphobia that significantly undercuts the film's attempts at empowerment. The film’s entire premise centers around a portrayal of HIV as a degrading, disgusting, shameful disease, perpetuating without question the very stigmas that led to both underfunding of HIV research in the first place and hesitancy to seek life-saving treatment in the modern day. But not only does Sonja’s extreme hysteria and unwillingness to accept her HIV diagnosis set a poor precedent for modern people with the virus, her disgust is also rooted in continual, explicit homophobia and transphobia that is not countered by a single other character in the film. She “makes herself up like a transvestite,” as her sister Lora remarks in disgust, so that, in Sonja’s words “everyone will know I have AIDS.” The scene implies that it’s a shameful thing to wear garish makeup because of its associations with sex work and trans people, that it’s acceptable to use the term “transvestite” (it’s not), and that being associated with a trans person is an inherently gross and embarrassing thing. There are numerous other homophobic and transphobic stereotypes and slurs that are said without restraint or consequence. Lora encourages Sonja to assume that any bisexual man has HIV, a stereotype that’s both patently false and still directly feeding into outdated rules for blood donors. Sonja’s grandfather is encouraged and praised for being a good patriarch after he goes on a detailed rant on how he’s going to “murder the filthy f***** who killed my daughter.”

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Perhaps more egregiously than any of these individual issues, however, is the show’s portrayal of trans man Yoana (played by Vesela Kazakova, who also co-directs the film). Yoana’s portrayal is essentially a checklist of how not to portray a trans character. Yoana’s girlfriend encourages him not to take gender-affirming hormones because she says “I want you as a woman,” and falsely claims the hormones will “stop your emotions.” Yoana does not stand up to this behavior; he says “I am a boy,” but makes the sacrifice not to transition in order to stay with his girlfriend. His family is in no way affirming of his transition, either; after he talks about not wanting to be pregnant due to gender dysphoria, a family member responds with “being a woman is hard.” Yoana receives a sea of laughs when he responds, “You know what’s worse — being a man,” and the film’s tone-deaf and thoughtless attempt at gender solidarity to the exclusion of trans people once again continues unchecked.

Though “Women Do Cry” has its strengths — genuine, intimate moments between female family members, moments of excellent acting from Bakalova and Stoyanova in particular — it shows a blatant disrespect for the LGBT community at every turn. One would think that someone telling a story about HIV would take care to counter stigmas and re-affirm that queer lives and bodies are worth saving. Instead, “Women Do Cry” seems to expect the audience to sympathize and even agree with Sonja’s sense that it is an incredible tragedy to have the disease precisely because it is so associated with LGBT people.

— Arts Chair Joy C. Ashford can be reached at joy.ashford@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @joy_ashford.

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